Farmers in Residence Profitable Farming

Summer 2010

Requires Creative Strategies

By Holli Cederholm

In talking with friends from my suburban childhood home about my post-college career path as an organic farmer, the last quality that any of them attributed to farmers is business savvy. In fact the composite group consisting of graphic designers, yoga instructors, plumbers, bartenders, and more than one office manager was quick to point out that I won’t be able to repay my student loans by selling vegetables at roadside markets. Although I was determined to prove them otherwise, I half believed them.

Like most young farmers we know, my partner Brian and I weren’t drawn to organic agriculture as a livelihood because of economic promise. Rather farming appealed to us because of the nature of the work. We get to be outdoors in the changing seasons, make our own hours, and feel good about what we’re doing. Farming is challenging – both mentally and physically – and thus is gratifying in a way that a desk job could never be.

Nonetheless farmers are business owners and if I want to continue thinning carrots and bunching beets for a livelihood, then I must make money doing it. Successful farmers, I am coming to understand, are conductors of finely orchestrated operations of dozens of decisions, from what to produce and how much, to where and when to sell their products. While assessing and eliminating what is not making a profit might seem like an obvious tenet to a successful enterprise, I’m not sure many market farmers practice it.

Richard Wiswall, farmer and author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, suggests crunching the numbers for the total costs and sales corresponding to every enterprise on your farm – from peas to carrots to laying hens.

Take the latter as an example, as Wiswall did in a class I attended this winter. As a class we added the costs per year of pullets, fencing, feeders and feed, bedding, egg cartons and time for chores (at a rate of $15 per hour). We then tallied all possible projections of income: eggs, manure and used hens. The result was shocking. Our collective laying hen operation (based on very real numbers gleaned from audience participation) was costing us over $1,500. (Some participants did suggest reducing costs for grain by putting hens on pasture longer.)

After attending Wiswall’s class, I realized that along with being diligent, observant workers, farmers must be continually creative strategists in terms of their bottom line. In terms of Proud Peasant Farm, we have yet to determine how to apply these lessons. Maybe we won’t grow peas after this season (after the time spent trellising and harvesting, it’s hard to imagine we’ll turn a profit) or maybe we’ll offer peas only as “pick-your-own” to our CSA customers. We will have to run the numbers.

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